Those whom the Gods would destroy…

Easter Island may now be a World Heritage site, but its once complex and integrated society finally collapsed in an orgy of civil war and cannibalism. In today’s Britain, this is replayed in the Conservative Party Leadership race. The direction of travel is not much different.

Arrogance and over consumption brought a once-prosperous society to its knees.

“Easter’s chiefs and priests had previously justified their elite status by claiming relationship to the gods, and by promising to deliver prosperity and bountiful harvests. They buttressed that ideology by monumental architecture and ceremonies designed to impress the masses.” (Jared Diamond: ‘Collapse’, How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin Books, 2011, p109)

The Brexit bus may not compare with Easter Island’s 1,000 moai statues but the vanity and insanity of the Tory Leadership race is definitely on the same page. In a detailed lament, even the Financial Times complained that The Tories’ wilful blindness on climate is baffling. But still the candidates slug it out with competing inanities.

Fantasy politics

Truss pedals the myth that solar farms are devouring the countryside when she has no evidence to back it up. There may be a more compelling case for putting solar on every home, office block, factory and car park in the country, but Truss isn’t making it. Both she and Sunak have pulled the rug on all the energy-saving and urban (clean) generation programmes that would deliver a renewable energy future.

Truss also offers herself as the faux-defender of British agriculture, maligning those who point out that no sustainable food and farming system can be found by ditching environmental standards in favour of a free-trade free-for-all. She turns her back on statutory measures that would force the shift into soil repair, bio-diversity restoration, radical reductions in both fertiliser use and food miles, and a fundamental rethink of diet and health. None of these are compatible with her neoliberal trade obsessions.

Sunak is no better. His stint as Chancellor saw the Treasury as the main block to radical decentralisation of energy systems. Moreover, Sunak won’t entertain any notion of the democratic ownership of ‘clean’ power. His answer is to demonise climate critics.

This probably leaves me just one step away from referral into one of Sunak’s proposed de-radicalisation programmes. Tightening the screw on climate protestors, Sunak would have critics redefined as people who ‘vilify’ Britain. De-radicalising protestors, under the government’s ‘Prevent’ programme, would be another step closer to the silenced society.

Putin, Xi and Sunak make three

Under Sunak, Britain would have its own version of Putin’s ‘filtration’ programme for Ukrainian refugees and Xi’s ‘re-education’ camps for Uyghur Muslims. It would do nothing to avert the climate crisis. It would just be the modern equivalent of a society devouring itself.

No doubt re-programmed critics would then dismiss any possible connection between the decimation of crabs in the North East and the dredging taking place as part of the government’s ‘free port’ fantasies.

Critics of privatised water companies could be re-programmed too. They would be urged to forget that when Margaret Thatcher privatised the water industry in 1989 she wrote off all the industry’s debts.

Since then the private owners of water have borrowed massively against the industry’s asset base, largely to reward shareholders. The industry stacked up almost £50bn in post-privatisation debt, largely to cover the £57bn paid out in shareholder dividends. Water companies can’t even claim this has paid for improved services, because public water bills increased by 40% above the rate of inflation.

Forget leakage rates for the moment, it is in the sewage discharges where the criticisms should begin. In 2020, the Environment Agency reported that the privatised companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and coastal areas over 400,000 times; an increase of 37% on the previous year.

The water industry blamed climate change. No one ever told them about the wild-weather roller-coaster that precedes climate collapse. Surely the increase in torrential downpours was not something they could be blamed for: except that this is exactly what climate scientists had been warning about for decades. Climate scientists too will probably need reprogramming.

And then there was drought

After the driest July since 1935, and an unprecedented heatwave, Britain has been thrown from a crisis of excess into one of scarcity. A hosepipe ban has been issued in the South East and the public urged to use water only for essential purposes.

This appeal to social solidarity, however, makes no reference to the 1 in 6 litres of water lost in water system leakages, nor to the corporate failure to invest in new ways of harvesting and storing torrential rain, nor to the absence of investment in water sharing infrastructures between regional systems.

Other countries look in disbelief at the debacle that is England’s privatised water industry. The only sprinkler system still running freely is the one that waters shareholder and Executive rewards. Jeremy Corbyn was lambasted for proposing to re-nationalise water back in 2017. Now it looks a no-brainer. But even that debate must move on.

Redefining ownership and accountability

In Italy, local authorities (on a regional basis) have to publish details of how they manage, retain and use the more dramatic water flows their geology and geography has to deal with. Paris and Barcelona have taken water into local authority control. And in Quebec, the publicly owned Hydro Quebec provides 100% renewable electricity for the whole Province as well as an abundant water supply.

The politics of clean water is as complicated as that of clean energy. In both cases, the issues are as much about using less as delivering more.

In 1992, rather than building new dams or reservoirs, New York City passed its Energy Policy Act mandating (and supporting) the installation of low-flush toilet and shower units across the City’s residential and commercial sectors. The benefits – in terms of water and CO2 savings, job creation, reduced sewage treatment costs and lower water charges – far outweighed the costs (and impact) of a new dam. Moreover, to raise the quality of its water, New York invested in water quality and environmental repair; partnering with farmers to develop a 5,000 sq/km protected area of forests surrounding the 3 watersheds that serve the City. At the other end of the process, New York checks almost two thirds of its water mains every year. All this is within the public domain.

In any sustainable future, water will have to be treated as a public asset not a speculative commodity. Public and environmental accountability must push shareholder/executive rewards off the table. New models of democratic and decentralised ownership then need to be developed, pinching the best examples of what already exists elsewhere. This will involve a battle with whoever wins the Conservative Leadership race.

That defines the political terrain Labour must occupy. But it comes at a time of colossal Labour confusion.

Radical is the only reasonable

For the moment, Labour is lost. Keir Starmer stumbles around questions of public ownership. His office team is off-planet and Starmer’s inability to support striking rail workers opened the Party to ridicule.

The latest YouGov poll put it in a nutshell. Only 21% of those polled thought Labour had a clear sense of purpose. More troubling was that, amongst those defining themselves as Labour supporters only 41% thought the Party knew what it’s purpose was.

Nothing captured this sense of confusion as much as the joke that followed Keir Starmer’s ‘congratulations’ message to the England Women’s football team after they’d won the Euro-2022 competition.

“At last Starmer has found some strikers he can support” joked the wag. It was funny and not funny at the same time.

Labour has to recognise that there are no answers to the cost of living crisis that can be separated from the climate crisis. A fairer distribution of the mess will not escape the mess. A boost to the economics of catastrophe still ends in catastrophe. This is the root of Labour confusion.

John McDonnell once told Shadow Treasury colleagues that climate was now in the driving seat and a new economics was needed to ride with it. Take whatever starting point you like – flood or fire, drought or destitution, energy or environment, housing or health, transport or taxation – in the politics of survival, radical has become the new reasonable.

That, rather than a new set of moai statues, is what Labour needs to offer.

Alan Simpson

Aug 2022

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